Let ’Em Move

Posted November 13, 2007 at 4:11pm

Embarrassed though House Democratic leaders may be by Republican success in proposing — and, often, passing — politically loaded motions to recommit, it would be an outrage for the majority to limit the minority’s right to do so.

Despite promises to manage the House on a more open basis than Republicans did during their 12-year rule, Democrats have been every bit as authoritarian — prohibiting any floor amendments, for instance, at more than double the rate of the previous Congress. Motions to recommit legislation to committees with instructions on how to alter it are often the only opportunity the minority has to affect the legislative process.

When they actually win a majority on the House floor — because a number of Democrats vote with Republicans — they constitute a huge embarrassment to Democratic leaders. This has happened 21 times this year — versus practically never during Republican rule — and each time Republicans have crowed that Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and her team have “lost control of the floor.”

Democratic leaders routinely fume at the practice, as when House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (Md.) accused the GOP of using the motion “for political purposes, not substantive purposes … not to change policy, but to try to construct difficult political votes for Members,” meaning potentially vulnerable Democrats.

As Roll Call reported last month, Democrats are searching for ways to change House rules to limit the minority’s right to propose motions to recommit. They’ve done so before, so far without success — once, because Republicans halted proceedings on the House floor to protest the attempt. We suggest that Democrats just drop the idea and learn to live with the GOP motions as a legitimate part of legislative work in a democracy.

It’s certainly true that many of the Republican motions have been politically designed — especially repeated motions to deny government benefits to illegal immigrants. Any Democrat who cast a vote against the measure — even if government aid already was barred by law — might well fear that it would be used by an opponent in a political commercial.

At the same time, many of the GOP motions have been substantive and have gained majority support because they contained popular ideas or posed difficult policy choices. Examples include a ban on federal funding to colleges that prohibit military recruiting on campus and an increase in funding for missile defense.

On two occasions, GOP motions were so threatening to the Democrats’ purposes that they actually pulled legislation on terrorist wiretapping and voting rights for the District of Columbia.

Rather than limit one of the minority’s few rights to affect legislation, we suggest that Democrats expand those rights by allowing Republicans to offer amendments on the floor. Would some of them be “purely political”? Of course. But more open and democratic debate also might produce better policy and reduce partisan rancor.